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Be an Anchor in 2019

Maya Smith is Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation

As my husband and son watched the Rose Bowl and my daughter napped, I sat on my couch with a new sketch book and traced the letters of the words I write most often – Be Kind – in pencil first and then in a permanent, black marker. Under the words, I wrote and underlined three categories; myself, my family, and the world and stared at the empty columns hoping that some brilliance would come to me. The brilliance has not come yet, so I’m writing this blog and hoping that by sharing my intention and inviting you to share yours, we can fill pages together.

Last month during one of our staff meetings, my colleague Aysha told me about the Find Your Anchor box. It’s a box literally filled with kind messages, affirmations, and positive images. The goal of this organization is to erase suicide and ensure that everyone is able to establish an anchor, which they define as “a dependable, stable, secure base that you can hold onto, one that keeps you firmly planted, no matter what winds or storms may come.” I fell in love with the concept, found my next tattoo (I’m sorry, Mom), and ordered two. I brought one with me to Las Vegas last week and carried it around with me everywhere I went, hoping to find someone who needed it more than I did. In each interaction, personal and professional, I asked people how they were, how they were feeling, and how their friends and family were doing. In both blatant and awkward ways and in more subtle and rehearsed ways, I wanted to know about the anchors in the lives of the people around me.

Marques was one of my drivers in Las Vegas. Before we even met, he texted me to ask me if I wanted to coffee, happily shuffled locations as my meetings ran over, arrived 15 minutes early, and on a particularly hectic day when we first met, his bright smile and kind spirit stopped me in my tracks. I sat down in the passenger seat, breathing a sigh of relaxation as he drove me to my next meeting. We chatted about his time in Las Vegas, his childhood outside of Los Angeles and he asked me questions about my work and my family. As most conversations between parents during the holidays go, I shared the story of my children on Christmas morning discovering their new hot wheels next to the Christmas tree. My heart was warmed by the memory and I invited Marques to share his Christmas morning story with his two daughters. “I didn’t see them on Christmas, I wasn’t OK” he answered, teetering on emotion for the first time and trying to change the subject. I gently pressed and invited him to share if he wanted to. Marques wanted to, so he bravely shared his difficult childhood, his often uncontrollable anger, his undeniable and overwhelming love for his daughters and his wife, and his difficult journey to become the type of man that he feels they deserve. Through tears, honesty and bravery, he shared an unimaginably difficult story with me as well as his recent decision to share his journey at work (thankfully met with support and understanding) and seek treatment. Marques didn’t know how the story would end but he knew – for the first time in a long time – that he wouldn’t end his story and that he’d keep fighting.

As Marques sat next to me trembling and crying while still expertly navigating the Las Vegas interstate, I rifled through my purse and opened up the Find Your Anchor box. I took out the note that read, “You are loved, Maya” and wrote, “You are loved, Marques” and handed him the box. I told him that I had been holding onto this box, from New York to California and now Las Vegas, and wanted to give it to someone who needed to be reminded of their anchor, of their strength, and of the need the world has for them. I got out of the car, hugged Marques, and went to yet another meeting – one Find Your Box lighter and one connection stronger.

Far too many people believe that no one wants to hear their stories, that people will fear their stories, and that people will judge their stories. I wasn’t out-of-the-ordinary kind to Marques, I’m so grateful he picked me to share with, and I am not sure how telling you his story will help with my resolution but I think the key to building a kinder and braver world is to share the beautiful stories, the difficult stories and to invest in them; to anchor ourselves in those stories and the people behind them. The key is to keep filling the pages of this story together, some days they’ll be blank or tattered and other days we’ll put hearts over the i’s and draw smiley faces, but if Marques isn’t giving up, if the team at Born This Way Foundation and I are doubling down, then join us, please.

It’s OK Not to Be OK

Emma is one of the oldest and most treasured members of the BTWF family.

I’ve had the honor and privilege of writing numerous blogs for Born This Way Foundation. Many know a portion of my story, but today, I am sharing a part of me that I am scared to death of. As I write this blog, I’m wrestling with my own feelings: when people read the words “I am disabled and depressed,” what will they think?

All too often, the juxtaposition of disability and mental health–particularly those with severe physical disabilities, such as my own–is incredibly stigmatized. The “be strong” mentality is rampant among the disability community, both by society-at-large and sometimes disabled people themselves. I know – I forced myself to conform to it.

About two months ago, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Looking back at my childhood, the symptoms of PTSD–an anxiety disorder that manifests due to, as the name implies, trauma–were obvious, occurring as young as three. When I think back to three-year-old me, confused after undergoing massive hip surgery to realign both of my dislocated hips and being body casted, I think of a child who is physically and mentally broken. One who feels out of place and misunderstood. Since then, I’ve had around 30 surgeries and procedures.

Later in childhood, I avoided hospitals, physical therapy, and sometimes even my own body in the mirror. By society’s standards, I found my body to be grotesque and less than. This was always exacerbated by medicine and in particular, any procedure that made me look or function at a different level than what most people were accustomed to. Many times throughout childhood, I would have massive, sometimes life-saving procedures and with that came an incredible amount of anxiety. I was always terrified of the stares. Of the constant, never-ending stream of “what happened?” During difficult periods of recovery, I would become reclusive – going so far as to hide from my own family. Even in adulthood, I experience a lot of the same triggers. I’ve had flashbacks, for example, and have a majorly warped body image.

Research shows that those with developmental disabilities are more likely than their neurotypical peers to experience trauma. This can be for a number of reasons, including neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or, you guessed it, invasive medical procedures. And yet, despite the fact that I constantly validate others’ feelings, I continue to deny my trauma and my PTSD diagnosis. I constantly minimize what happened to me as though I didn’t do enough to “earn it.” When I become triggered, I wrestle with the thought of being a burden on my family; with it being “my fault.” I wrestle with the thought that in childhood, I didn’t do enough to make it better. “Maybe,” my mind says, “had I done more then, I’d be more able now.” Maybe, I’d have more worth. More to give. Maybe, I’d be able to think more positively like so many others who have similar diagnoses, who say they never feel sad. Maybe, I could be strong and fit the mold that so many people see me as.

Whether we realize it or not, there is a very real and toxic mentality that those with disabilities and/or chronic illness should not or do not feel negative emotions connected with their diagnoses. What I’ve realized now is that I am entitled to those feelings. Just as anyone else, I am entitled to my humanity.

And so are you.

Multiply Your Good: Information + Rules!

Pledge to #MultiplyYourGood here or visit http://bornthisway.foundation/multiplyyourgood!

Every single person has the power to do good + we can do more good together!

To help multiply the good in the world, we’re teaming up with Zappos (and some of our other favorite partners!) and inviting you to celebrate your ability to make a difference this holiday season by giving back to the nonprofit organizations that make your community a kinder, braver place.

The Challenge: Between November 13th (World Kindness Day!) and December 21st, do an act of good by volunteering or donating to a nonprofit in your community. For every act of good you pledge – and tell us about it through the form below! – we’ll match it by performing an act of good for one of our amazing nonprofit partners.

Remembering that you have the capacity to make a difference feels pretty amazing, but – as an extra incentive – we’ll choose one participant (and their guest) to join us in Las Vegas to do good with Team BTWF at a day of service and to check out Lady Gaga’s new show!

  1. Pick a Nonprofit + How You’ll Help: Choose an organization that’s doing good and decide how you can help them – give your time, give your money, or give your gently used items. Everyone has the power to do something! Here are some tips to get you started.
  2. Take the Pledge: Use the form below to tell us which organization you plan to support and how you’ll do it. Want to do more than one good deed? Just fill out the same form for each act of good you pledge to perform – and, remember, we’ll match every single one you tell us about (and every pledge enters you for the drawing for the trip to Las Vegas)!
  3. Share About It: Tell us how it goes – and invite others to join you! – by sharing on social media. Make sure to include the hashtag #MultiplyYourGood and tag @btwfoundation on Twitter and Instagram.

Pro Tip from Our Partners at Zappos

One way you can #MultiplyYourGood is through the amazing Zappos for Good program! You can donate new or secondhand school supplies – including shoes – to one of Zappos’ charitable partners and they will cover your shipping costs!

RULES

  • In order to be eligible for the drawing, participants must:
    • Be residents of the United States and at least 15 years old. Those under the age of 18 must have the permission of their parent or guardian.
    • Take the pledge above. Each pledge submission serves as one entry for the drawing.
    • Post about the Challenge on Twitter or Instagram tagging @btwfoundation and using the hashtag #MultiplyYourGood between November 13th and December 21st, 2018.
  • The winner will be selected at random from everyone who has taken the pledge between 9:00 am EST on November 13, 2018 and 11:59 pm EST on December 21, 2018.
  • If you are selected as the winner, you will be asked to submit proof that you completed the act of good you pledged to perform – such as a receipt or confirmation from the nonprofit – as well as proof that you posted on social media in accordance with the rules above, between 9:00 am EST on November 13, 2018 and 11:59 pm EST on December 21, 2018.
  • Born This Way Foundation will cover the following costs for the winner and their guest: transportation to and from Last Vegas, one hotel room for one night, and two tickets to a Lady Gaga show. Any additional expenses incurred will not be covered.

Giving Tuesday + Thank You Cards

Maya Smith is Executive Director at Born This Way Foundation

I Facetimed with a 4th grade Girl Scout troop a couple of weeks ago and they had adorable questions about my job and Lady Gaga and they eagerly shared their own examples of kindness from their school in Northern California. The whole experience took less than 20 minutes and I was glad – honored – to do it. In yesterday’s mail, a package of the sweetest handwritten thank you cards arrived from these girls with kind words, practiced cursive writing, and beautiful flower doodles filling every corner. I sat cross legged on my bed, next to my son Hunter, after a stressful day and read each one, passing them to him (a newly minted reader) so he could read them as well.

This is one of the daily experiences I have working for Born This Way Foundation where people thank me for something that has given me so much more than I have given them. That’s the thing about kindness: everyone wins.

I should be writing these smart, funny, passionate Girl Scouts my own bundle of Crayola thank you cards (and maybe I will). But today is Giving Tuesday, so I’m saving ALL my hand cramps for the thank you cards I’ll be sending to the generous members of our community who will help continue to make our mission of building a kinder, braver world possible.

On Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in supporting Born This Way Foundation. You might do it for the thank you card. You might do it because you’ve learned from Cynthia’s honest wisdom. You might do it because you’ve been inspired by the videos Shadille creates, laughing and crying alongside the young people on the other side of her camera lens. You might do it because you’ve been moved to action by the programs that Alex and Aysha bring to life or because you love the emails that Mitu helps craft (always proofread by the do-it-all Rachel).

Maybe you’re the beneficiary of one of the more than 8,000,000 acts of kindness that #BeKind21 catalyzed across the globe or maybe you’re a teacher whose classroom was transformed through our partnership with DonorsChoose.org. Maybe you’re one of the scores of people who were inspired to get trained in Mental Health First Aid by our #BeKindBeTheDifference campaign or maybe you’ve been reminded of the good that exists in the world (and you’re ability to amplify it!) by the stories of Channel Kindness.

I’m not sure why you came to Born This Way Foundation, but I’m grateful you’re a part of our community and I can promise – both as the Executive Director and the colleague of this incredible, passionate, hardworking team – that the best is yet to come and we need your support to make it a reality.

In 2019, with your support, we will:

  • Bring high-quality, evidence-based resources to young people across the country, equipping youth with the critical tools and skills they need to support their mental wellness.
  • Establish programming in Las Vegas to coincide with our co-founder Lady Gaga’s residency at the MGM Park Theater, expanding access to mental health resources for local youth and working with them to build kinder, healthier communities.
  • Conduct timely, innovative research to better understand what young people need to lead thriving lives.
  • Continue to build an action-oriented community of do-gooders through the new #ChannelKindness, harnessing our collective power to build a kinder, braver world.

Please, fill my day with continued gratitude and the opportunity to draw you Crayola doodles on the corners of Born This Way Foundation stationary. Thank you for your support, for your generous donation, and for embodying and supporting kindness every day.

Click here to donate.

World Kindness Day + Starbucks

A year ago next month, I was in Houston with Lady Gaga and the inspiring men and women from Team Rubicon, mucking out Ms. Pamela’s house after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. I left my home, flew three hours away, and landed in a disaster zone and saw some of the hardest hit sites I’ve ever seen as I toured a neighborhood demolished by the fury of nature and struggling to find a way forward amidst caved in ceilings, schools overtaken by mold, and water lines that rose to the ceilings of once occupied homes. Team Rubicon is an organization that allows veterans to leverage their unique skills and experiences to support relief efforts and this week, as we celebrate Veterans Day, I am grateful for the constant, ultimate commitment that our servicemembers make on behalf of our country.

I am honored to have served, for four hours, alongside Team Rubicon to help alleviate the suffering in Ms. Pamela’s Houston neighborhood. Today, I am waiting for Team Rubicon to arrive in my own backyard, as most of our beautiful state is sandwiched between two raging wildfires, blanketing those parts of California that are not actively ablaze (like my community, for the moment) in oppressive smoke and haze. My family and I are again among the lucky ones, because we are safe and we watch the devastation spread and the heroism of first responders who walk into the fire, bravely.

Today, World Kindness Day feels especially urgent because the world is – in so many ways – on fire. To Born This Way Foundation, and to me, kindness is being in community with people who ask themselves – what does the world need? What unmet need can I help meet today? How can I alleviate the suffering of another person? So in honor of World Kindness Day, in recognition of the challenges our communities are facing, and in celebration of our power – individually and collectively – to make a real, tangible difference, we’re inviting you to join our latest Channel Kindness Challenge: #MultiplyYourGood.

Through #MultiplyYourGood, we’re asking you to give back to a nonprofit organization working to make your community a kinder, braver place. You can help by volunteering your time, giving your gently used items, or making a monetary donation. For every act of good you pledge (and tell us about here!), we’ll match it by performing an act of good for one of our amazing nonprofit partners!

To help bring the campaign to life, we’ll have help from some awesome organizations who share our commitment to doing good, including Zappos and SoulCycle and, to kick things off, we’re teaming back up with Starbucks. For World Kindness Day, we’re co-hosting community events at six neighborhood Starbucks stores – stop by one of the stores listed below today between 1PM and 4PM (local time) and join us and a local nonprofit organization for a cup of coffee, a moment of community, and to take part in an activity in service to others.

  • Walnut Creek, CA (my home Starbucks!), with Mindful Littles, Peter Pan Foundation, and Youth Homes
  • New York City, with the Ali Forney Center
  • Los Angeles, with Children Mending Hearts
  • Las Vegas, with Street Teens and The Center
  • Seattle, with Youth Cares (this one is 2:30-4PM)
  • Austin, with The Kindness Campaign

Let mine be one of many invitations you accept on World Kindness Day – and every day – to look around, acknowledge grief, despair, and trauma and commit to kindness, to community, and to the kinder and braver world that we urgently know is possible.

If you can’t join us in person, pledge to #MultiplyYourGood online at bornthisway.foundation/multiplyyourgood.